In the swinging ’60s, Marianne Faithfull lived a life of sex, drugs and rock and roll, and almost ended up paying the ultimate price. But, as she reveals, she wasn’t the first wild child in her extraordinary Jewish family
Marianne Faithfull was raised as a Catholic, but the husky-voiced singer says she has her Jewish roots to thank for her acclaimed renditions of the songs of Bertholt Brecht and Kurt Weill. People were astounded when they first heard her perform their work, she recalls — which started her wondering why she had such an innate flair for their music.
“What I decided is that it must be something genetic,” she says. “Like alcoholism or drug addiction.” Her Hungarian grandmother was Jewish and, she says, music by Weill, a cantor’s son, is “very much the tonic scale from the temple”. Faithfull has never been to synagogue or heard the music played there. “But I think there must really be some genetic memory of my Jewish background,” she says wistfully.
To the anger of both their families, Faithfull’s grandmother married an Austrian aristocrat, Baron Sacher-Masoch (a relative of the author of the notorious masochistic novel, Venus in Furs), when she was 18 years old, and converted to Christianity — a not uncommon occurrence at the time. She says she still attended synagogue on High-holy days. And were it not for her husband’s intervention, she would have had to wear a yellow star after the Nazis came to power in Austria. As someone who thought of herself as a Hungarian patriot, first and foremost, she was as shocked as any other Jew by the Nazi racial laws.
The horrors and degradations of the Second World War did not end when the Russians entered Vienna. The liberators were “hell-bent on rape, destruction, and pillage”, according to her 2007 memoir, Memories, Dreams and Reflections. When a soldier discovered her mother Eva, then a young girl, and her grandmother hiding in a room, he raped her. Her mother then picked up a gun and shot him before he could do the same to her mother.
As a result of the rape, Eva had to have an abortion. Faithfull believes this is why she wanted to marry her father, Glynn Faithfull, a British Major in MI6, and give birth to her own child. “I’ve heard that when a woman has had an abortion, she always wants to have a child,” she wrote.
Before the war, Eva had been a dancer in Berlin. “I now wish I could have got out of my mother what her life was actually like then, you know?,” says Faithfull. “She had a wild time, but she never told me.”
One tantalising anecdote she did tell her was about how she was befriended by a prostitute on the Kurfurstendamm who would see her home safely at night.
“So there’s little Eva, very young, on her way back to some sort of quite cheap digs where she was staying, and this woman saying, ‘Right, I’ll make sure you get home okay’.” Faithfull pauses for a moment then adds: “But I wonder what else happened?”
Despite Eva’s bohemian past, Faithfull says she broke her mother’s heart when she embarked on her own wild time. A singer, discovered at 17 by Rolling Stones manager Andrew Oldham, her first single, the Mick Jagger/Keith Richards-penned As Tears Go By, made her a star. Faithfull dismisses the rumour that she had had a hand in writing the song.
“I’d met Mick and Keith, I was in their heads, but I was with my mother. I mean, I was 17! But now I know there is nothing as gorgeous as a very beautiful girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful. Anyway, Mick had seen this incredible little comet flashing past and I was completely different to the sort of girls that were in their world.” She laughs.
Her life became a whirlwind. By age 18, she was a wife to artist John Dunbar and a mother of one son, Nicholas. A love affair with Jagger ended in 1970, and that same year she lost custody of her son. She survived a suicide attempt and spiralled downwards, spending two years sleeping rough in Soho, addicted to heroin. Now 61, she is the rock ’n’ roll casualty who survived to tell her tale.
“It’s just luck. I could have easily…” She falls silent for a moment. “I mean, so many people didn’t. I don’t know why I survived. It’s nothing I did right, I can tell you. A junkie is not a strong person. I was really lucky.”
She was lucky in 2006, too, when a routine check-up revealed a “little lump” in her breast. She had cared for her mother when she was seriously ill with cancer, and feared the worst.
“I went to a really great doctor and he saw something that somebody else might have missed. It was actually pre-cancer, so I was incredibly lucky.” Her voice suddenly cracks with emotion. “I was very scared and it really frightened me. It’s different today, but I grew up in a world where if you got cancer — finished. That’s it.”
Grateful to be alive, she is now entering a new phase in her colourful life. In June, she can be seen in Sam Garbaski’s film comedy-drama Irina Palm, playing a frumpy grandmother who gives hand relief to punters in a Soho sex club to earn money to pay for her grandson’s medical expenses. In a sweet, rather than seedy, movie, her understated performance was lauded by critics at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2007. Although not her first appearance in a film, this is her debut as the lead.
“I didn’t really know if I could do it and when I saw the film for the first time, there were two things I realised: one of them was that I could carry a film and the other one is that there’s not one minute that is Marianne Faithfull. I am Maggie.”
This is one of the best times ever, she beams. Which begs the question: when was she happiest?
“When I was about 15, before it all happened,” she says unhesitatingly. “I was really happy, with my mum, with my school friends, really innocent. I mean, the naughtiest thing I was doing was reading Oscar Wilde and Baudelaire.”
Since those innocent days, she has lived out her dreams and nightmares. She has regrets — “I wish I had been nicer to my parents. I wish I had been a better mother. I wish I had been kinder to people, somehow. I was very, very, very self-centred, and I still have to watch it” — but that’s inevitable, she says philosophically.
“If you’re going to be really alive and not deaden yourself to things in any way you choose, there will be good dreams and there will be bad dreams, and that’s how it is. This is a great dream. I don’t want to wake up.”
Irina Palm is released on June 13